Eighth Blackbird Named Musical America's 2017 Ensemble of the Year

October 18, 2016
Erich Burnett
members of Eighth Blackbird

Eighth Blackbird, the Oberlin-founded contemporary classical music collective that has played a pivotal role in forging the landscape of classical music in the 21st century, has been named Musical America’s Ensemble of the Year for 2017.

The honor makes Eighth Blackbird the latest in an ever-growing list of Oberlin alumni who have been feted by the venerable classical music publication. Most recently, violinist Jennifer Koh ’97 was named 2016 Instrumentalist of the Year. In 2014, pianist Jeremy Denk ’90 earned the same honor. Also that year, the International Contemporary Ensemble—founded by flutist and entrepreneur Claire Chase ’01—was named Musical America’s Ensemble of the Year.

Formed in 1996 by six Oberlin students under the guidance of Oberlin Professor of Conducting Timothy Weiss, Eighth Blackbird earned international acclaim almost immediately by winning the 1996 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition. Numerous other accolades followed—including four Grammy Awards and a MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions—along with steady waves of praise throughout the ensemble’s 20-year career. (The Chicago Tribune has called it “one of the smartest, most dynamic contemporary classical ensembles on the planet.”) In that time, Eighth Blackbird has commissioned and premiered hundreds of works by modern composers including David Lang, Steven Mackey, and Steve Reich, whose Double Sextet won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

Over the past year, Eighth Blackbird was artist in residence at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, where members served as a “living installation,” complete with public rehearsals and guest artists. Upcoming 20th anniversary celebrations include performances with the San Francisco Symphony and singer-songwriter Bonnie “Prince” Billy.

Four of Eighth Blackbird’s six founding members remain: pianist Lisa Kaplan ’97, cellist Nicholas Photinos ’96, clarinetist Michael Maccaferri ’96, and percussionist Matthew Duvall ’94. They are joined by flutist Nathalie Joachim and violinist/violist Yvonne Lam.

"We are deeply honored to be recognized by Musical America as Ensemble of the Year,” says Photinos. “This award puts us in the esteemed company of many groups we know and admire, in particular many groups championing the music of today. We can think of few greater acknowledgements as we celebrate our 20th anniversary season and look towards the future.”

Founded in 1898, Musical America is the oldest U.S. publication dedicated to classical music and the performing arts. It has bestowed annual achievement awards for more than 50 years. Past winners include Leonard Bernstein, Igor Stravinsky, Itzhak Perlman, and Yo-Yo Ma. The award for Ensemble of the Year has been presented for 21 years, though only 14 ensembles have been recognized over that time.

The Musical America accolade is Eighth Blackbird's second major honor this month: It also earned Chamber Music America’s inaugural Visionary Award for innovation in performance practice. The publication noted that the ensemble “has expanded the very definition of chamber music by devising programs that incorporate multiple disciplines, virtuosity, innovative staging, and connection with its audiences.”

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